2011: 2. The Heart of the Matter

“Wilson sat on the balcony of the Bedford Hotel with his bald pink knees against the ironwork.”

The Heart of the Matter, Graham Greene

        I was surprised to find that I hadn’t blogged about this book - it seems that I’d read it rather recently, but maybe it’s just that I read all those Greene biographies that talked a great deal about the novel, which is, if not the greatest Greene (The Modern Library’s opinion notwithstanding, I’ll plump for The End of the Affair), probably the Greene-iest, with its exotic setting, its Catholicism, and its inhabitants of Greeneland. 

Spoilers follow: 

         It is the story of Scobie, an honorable policeman serving in West Africa during the war, who finds himself forced to do a dishonorable thing in order to make his wife happy.  Forced because he no longer loves her, and thus feels responsible for her happiness.  Then in her absence he falls in love with a young war widow, and, when his wife returns, finds himself trapped between the women he owes responsibility too, and his God - who he can no longer find solace in, given his state of sin.  It sounds bleak, and I guess it is, but its beautifully so, and, in the end, having set up this impossible problem where sinning (and make no mistake, Scobie thinks what he is doing is wrong) is the right thing to do - it’s better for Scobie to hurt God than either woman - Greene ends on a redemptive note.

           Speaking of Scobie’s suicide, his wife says, to her priest,

“ ‘It’s no good even praying...’

Father Rank clapped the cover of the diary to and said furiously, ‘For goodness’ sake, Mrs. Scobie, don’t imagine you - or I - know a thing about God’s mercy.’

‘The Church says . . .’

‘I know what the Church says.  The Church knows all the rules.  But it doesn’t know what goes on in a single human heart.’ ”

      I liked that the book took Catholicism seriously, but still offered hope and the sense that there is more to it that just dogma.  Which squares with my own understanding of Greene’s own religious values, but moves me, as Catholic who thinks there is more too it than just the rules.

        Continuing a theme that has permeated this blog lately, I was also moved, on this re-read, on the treatment of the death of Scobie’s only child, in far off England, and how that event was in many was the underlay of so much of the plot.  From the critical scene with the dying child in the hospital, to Scobie’s pity/love (for that is what it is) for the child bride war widow, to his sense that he had nothing to live for, and only wanted peace, much of the novel is driven by that loss, though it only comes through obliquely in parts.  Dunno - might just be the parent in me shining through, but that’s how I saw it. 

Categories:  Fiction, Modern Library Top 100, Re-Read

© Carrie Dunsmore 2017